08 October 2007

Is Christianity Mythology?

...or vice-versa? or neither?
In this post, I'll begin exploring C. S. Lewis's idea that mythology prefigured Christianity. I would be happy to read your responses. Do you believe that a writer of Christian poetry or fiction can use mythological symbols to represent truth? Or is that dangerously like heresy or paganism? Why do you think there are so many common threads between Christianity and all the myths? Are they all true? ... and so on.

Like most authors of either the spiritual or the fantastical (or both; compare George MacDonald, Charles Williams, J. R. R. Tolkien, or even Dante and Milton), Lewis was always searching for symbols and images that would best carry the essential Ideas of his story-telling. In his children’s tales, he often turned to “dressed animals.” In a poem entitled “Impenitence,” he wrote: “they all cry out to be used as symbols… parodies by Nature / Formed to reveal us / Each to each” (Poems 2, ll. 20, 21-3). He also used a multitude of characters from mythology, folktales, and fairy tales. His writings are peopled with fabulous creatures and gods of all sorts. Walter Hooper claims:
Lewis did not, of course, believe in the factual existence of Dryads (any more than Spenser or Milton); nor did he believe in their non-existence as a nihilist would. The whole rich and genial universe of mythological beings—giants, dragons, paradises, gods—were to him abbreviated symbols of qualities present in the world (Poems vi).
But he did hope that he would meet these creatures in Heaven! (Pike 38). He thought that since these beings—-giants, for example-—appear in the tales of many different cultures, they must personify persistent human impressions—-such as the sensation that we are small in the universe and powers larger and stronger than ourselves haunt its dark corners. In The Weight of Glory, Lewis explained that “we have peopled air and earth and water… with gods and goddesses” (Weight of Glory 16) because “though we cannot fully participate in Nature, …we feel that we are somehow meant to do so; therefore we invent deities to inhabit and enjoy Nature from the inside for us” (Kulberg 6). In both the Narnian stories and in all his other fiction, he ransacked the rich heterogeneous universes of mythology, tumbling the results together in a delightful—-or frustrating—-hodge-podge.

For Lewis did not choose one culture’s mythology and build upon it alone throughout his life. While there was one system which he used more than any other, and used coherently in his own imaginative universe (the Ptolemaic cosmology), he often picked and chose from among Greek, Roman, Norse, and Irish mythologies. The "Narniad" alone, for example, is peopled with fauns, talking beasts, centaurs, dryads, satyrs, a Minotaur, Bacchus, Silenus, Maenaeds, naiads, the river god, dragons, dwarves, giants, and a Pegasus (also a Phoenix and Centaurettes, according to the Disney film!).

This miscellany did not delight everyone. J. R. R. Tolkien, a good friend, colleague, and fellow Inkling, disliked the Narnia Chronicles precisely because of their mixture of mythologies. Tolkien had felt all his life that England lacked a great national mythology of its own, like those of Greece and Rome, since even most quintessentially British legends—-King Arthur’s—-are actually French in origin. Thus Tolkien set about to create a consistent legend cycle, with roots in the Norse sagas and other Germanic folklore. He set himself the task of creating all the languages of his peoples, then found that language presupposes a history or mythology, and so worked his way backwards into the ancient history of Middle Earth. He never finished his task. The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, thorough and consistent though they are in and of themselves, are only the narrow latter end of an epic reaching back millennia. After Tolkien died, his son Christopher gathered together his father’s notes and complied something like what the magnum opus was to have been: The Silmarillion.

Lewis’s “Silmarillion,” his consummate and consistent mythology, is his "Space" Trilogy; his masterpiece is Till We Have Faces. These two extremely different works deploy mythology in different ways, just as each expresses the quest and consummation of Sehnsucht differently. Both express truth in profoundly mythical ways. But before I examine these text, I would like to discuss how C. S. Lewis was able to communicate Christian truths through pagan mythology by means of his his interpretation of General revelation-- so that will be my next post!

1 comment:

Veronica Mitchell said...

I think pagan mythologies can be ably used to express Christian truth, and there is a long history of doing so.

In scripture the images and mythological background of the nations around Israel were absorbed and transformed in the light of monotheistic belief in a loving God. The Psalms are full of images borrowed from the myths in the pagan cultures around Israel.